From hand to fist

Rise in domestic violence among Ethiopian olim has social service professionals working overtime.

ethiopian woman 88 (photo credit: )
ethiopian woman 88
(photo credit: )
It is a Sunday evening in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Neveh Ya'acov and as dusk descends, 150 Ethiopian-Israeli families gather at the Brandt elementary school to study Hebrew as part of the Joint Distribution Committee-run Atzmaut [independence] program. After dropping their children off with volunteers in the classrooms downstairs, the adults make their way to the upper rooms, where, for the next three hours, they will strive to improve their language skills and hopefully their living conditions, as well. "The program is aimed at teaching the community how to take responsibility for itself through programs that they decide upon," says Shimon Menbaru, director of the program in Neveh Ya'acov. Atzmaut is run in several locations countrywide, with support from city councils and other local bodies, government ministries and the United Jewish Communities-Federations of North America. "The criterion is that they are young families who made aliya after 2000. We do not take families with serious social problems or with active social-service files - just those who are struggling day to day. They may have difficulty with Hebrew; or maybe they work in cleaning and want to better themselves. We just want to help them break out of that cycle and help them succeed." He continues: "We try to make it as easy as possible for them to learn in a pleasant environment, with coffee and facilities for the children." One of the program's coordinators, Adi Farada, says that he has noticed real changes in behavioral patterns in some of the families on the program, which began last year. "Now, when I call and the husbands answer, they always say they have to check with their wives before they make a commitment to something," says Farada. "I believe that this program has changed attitudes for the best. Husbands and wives are now talking with each other, rather than the husbands making decisions by themselves." Yet, while the program's goal is to focus on improving the situation of all family members - summer camps and after-school clubs for the children, and Hebrew studies and assistance understanding Israeli bureaucracy for the adults - what is glaringly apparent to anyone visiting the school during ulpan hours is the severe absence of men. Except for one older participant in the advanced Hebrew class, all of the 20-plus students here tonight are women. "There is a problem with the men; studying often doesn't interest them," observes ulpan teacher Binyamin Assegi, who came to Israel in 1998. "Ethiopian tradition dictates that the women raise the children and the men go out to work, so the men are less free to study. It is a shame that they do not have enough time to learn." Asked why their men are not around, a soft-spoken Atzmaut participant named Aviva answers: "I work five hours a day cleaning houses, and my husband works 9, sometimes 10, hours a day as a guard. He wants to study here, but he is just too tired." This imbalance between Ethiopian men and woman where learning Hebrew is concerned has contributed to accelerating family tensions among these new immigrants. "The women learn the language faster. They deal with the children and the schools. They go to the bank and withdraw money. The husband then begins to question who he is - and from there it begins," says Assegi, alluding to the recent rise in violent crimes by men against their wives. OVER THE past few months, violent acts committed by Ethiopian men against their partners have been widely publicized. In April, an Or Yehuda man stabbed his wife to death and then committed suicide in front of the couple's seven children. A mere six weeks later in Beersheba, an Ethiopian man stabbed his wife, causing her serious injuries. A few weeks after that, another Ethiopian man killed his girlfriend, a student at the Jezreel Valley College. Regarding the question of whether this phenomenon is more common in the Ethiopian community than in other sectors of society, statistics gathered by WIZO show that the two Ethiopian women murdered make up a third of the total number of women killed by their partners thus far in 2006 - figures on a par with those from 2005 and ahead of those from 2004. And these do not even count women who are seriously injured by their husbands or boyfriends, say sources at WIZO. Aviva says: "In Ethiopia, the husband is rich in status and knowledge. He comes here and, once the first ulpan is finished, he can't find work and sits at home. Everything has changed and he is angry and sad. He remembers how he managed in Ethiopia, and in Israel it is though he is in jail." Workeh, 24, adds, "The tradition in Ethiopia is that the husbands work and the women stay home to look after the house and the children. In Israel, it is all different. The children are at school and we have to learn Hebrew so that we can help the children with their homework. I have to learn Hebrew if I want to succeed in Israel." Workeh's desire to succeed and improve her status is echoed by most of the other women in the room. "I am sick of cleaning," says Barachico, a single mother-of-three. "In Ethiopia, I studied and here I am nothing. I want to learn a profession. I want to succeed in life." Tadefalth, another of the students, adds: "I clean houses, but I want to learn a profession." "I pray that I can get out of cleaning soon," chimes in Aviva, who recently moved from Beersheba to the Jerusalem area, where she believes there are more opportunities for advancement. "The difference between Ethiopian immigrants and immigrants from the West is that so many things here are a completely new experience for them [the Ethiopians]," says Negist Mengashe, director of Ethiopian National Project, an Ethiopian-led initiative funded by the Israeli government and donations from global Jewry. "Many of the Ethiopians who came did not even know how to write in their own language. They had no education, no professions; most had never even sent their children to school before. Our progress is different from that of other immigrants." Aside from the changing status of Ethiopian women and conjugal roles within the family, Mengashe also attributes economic factors - more than 70 percent of Ethiopian families live below the poverty line - and the added financial stress of recently arrived immigrants to support family members still living in Ethiopia. Atzmaut program director Menbaru agrees. "You heard what kind of salaries those women were bringing home - whole families living on NIS 3500 a month," he says. "They have their mortgages and children's education and that is for those who work; but what about those who can't find work?" He adds: "Many of the families coming now send money back to Ethiopia to help family members still living there, and sometimes there is even a struggle over whose family to send the money to, the husband's or the wife's?" Mengashe blames the government policy of allowing only 300 Ethiopian immigrants into Israel each month for some of the tensions within the family. A spokesman at the Jewish Agency explained that there is a lengthy process of verifying the background of each person wanting to come to Israel. Ethiopian Jews who are Falash Mura do not immigrate under the Law of Return, but rather under the Law of Entry - meaning that each case must be evaluated individually. The Interior Ministry must first approve the documentation of each application and then the Jewish Agency is able to facilitate the immigration. Official estimates put the number of Ethiopians still waiting to immigrate at 20,000. Another factor contributing to the specific tensions between spouses - and to the growing social problems in the Ethopian community in general - is the loss of the kind of social networks the families had in Ethiopia, explain Mengashe and Manbaru. "In Ethiopia, there was the extended family living nearby," says Manbaru. "When the father was not around, there was always an uncle who could help with a problem." SHLOMO AKELE is founder of the Bahalachin Cultural Center, a grassroots educational, vocational and social service organization aimed at helping Ethiopian families deal with their conflicts, but which has been curtailed by budget cuts. "The Bahalachin used to run 19 centers countrywide," says Akele. "But in the past three years, our budget has been slashed and now there are only four active centers. We can only afford to pay the 'Shimagloch,' or community elders, by the hour to treat people in the traditional way." He adds that since January alone the organization has had more than 100 requests for help from Ethiopian couples experiencing problems in their relationships. "In the past, when people came to us with problems, we would have them speak to a Shimagloch, who would make them feel relaxed by talking to them in their own verbal and cultural language," explains Akele. "Ethiopian families would turn to the Shimagloch instead of to Israeli social workers," says Mengashe. "The Shimagloch would then explain the problem to the authorities and work with the Israeli court system. Now there is no money for them. That body has totally collapsed. With all due respect to the state of Israel, there are immigrants from Ethiopia still looking for those resources. An Israeli social worker cannot understand the depth of the problems in the same way that an Ethiopian elder can."